What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Firefighter?

An image of firefighters for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Firefighter

If you have a passion for helping others and the courage to confront emergencies head-on, even when it means running into a burning building, then a career as a firefighter could be the right choice for you. Firefighters may not need a college degree for entry-level positions, but they often do need some level of postsecondary education and training to develop the skills necessary for saving lives. Training at a fire academy is another integral part of preparation for a career in firefighting. A college education in a field like fire science can lead to career advancement into leadership positions like fire chief.

Postsecondary Education for Firefighters

Entry-level firefighters don’t necessarily need a college degree to attain their first firefighting positions. However, many full-time firefighting positions call for specific certifications that do warrant some sort of postsecondary education, according the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For example, many departments require firefighters to be trained as basic emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which often includes training in assessing patients, checking vital signs, managing cardiac emergencies and trauma situations, respiratory management, and the use of basic medical equipment. Though EMT-Basic training programs don’t necessarily award a degree, the education they provide is crucial to success in careers in emergency services, including firefighting.

A number of colleges now offer certificates, along with associate’s and bachelor’s programs, in firefighting, fire science, and fire technology. These programs are designed not only to equip students with the knowledge they need to meet EMT requirements but also to help them develop skills such as leadership and fire prevention. Earning a degree in fire science or a related field can provide a competitive edge for firefighters looking to advance to high-level positions such as chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, fire inspector, and fire investigator. In fire science degree programs, students learn how to use and maintain firefighting equipment, and they learn tactics to prevent and control fires of various types. Students of fire science programs study combustible substances, proper handling of hazardous materials, fire investigation, fire codes, and rescue procedures. In addition to classroom instruction, students often receive hands-on training and may have the opportunity to attend a clinical ride-along.

Fire Academy

Upon attaining their first firefighting position, new firefighters learn local building codes, emergency medical procedures, and strategies for preventing and fighting fires at state- or local department-run fire academies. Recruits also learn how to operate standard equipment, such as axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, hoses, and ladders. A few months may be spent training at fire academies. While fire academy requirements vary, some departments mandate apprenticeship programs, in which the new firefighter works under the guidance of an experienced firefighter for as long as four years. After completing the fire academy training, a firefighter must complete a probationary period. Wildland apprenticeship programs can last up to four years.

In addition to completing fire academy, firefighters must earn EMT-Basic certification, which requires passing both written and practical portions of a national examination. Not all academies are sponsored locally or by the state. Some training sessions may be sponsored by the National Fire Academy, a federal sponsorship. Firefighters attending these specialized training sessions will learn anti-arson techniques, disaster and emergency preparedness, how to handle hazardous materials, and public fire safety.

An image of firefighters for our FAQ about the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Firefighter

Firefighting is a rewarding job for those with the courage to do it. Though a formal degree is not required for all entry-level firefighting jobs, postsecondary training is essential to teach new firefighters how to prevent and control fires, use specialized equipment, and rescue injured victims.

Licenses, Registrations, and Certifications for Firefighters

Certification and licensure requirements for firefighters vary by state and locality. To find out what is required to work in your state, you must check with your state licensing agency or local fire department for further information. However, most firefighters, as indicated above, must have certain credentials, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic certifications. The NREMT, or National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, is responsible for certifying paramedics and EMTs who have completed formal programs and passed required examinations. Some firefighters may be required to do the same.

Also, since firefighters operate and drive a firetruck, commercial driver’s licensing (CDL) may be required. Depending on state and local requirements, some firefighters must have either a CDL or driver’s license with a firefighter endorsement to operate the vehicle.

The role of firefighter requires that credentials and certifications are maintained. Continuing education is often required to maintain licensing and credentials. Firefighters may be required to enroll in training sessions both in and out of the classroom. Often, training sessions are locally sponsored and department-run.

Additional Qualities Needed for Work as a Firefighter

In addition to education, training, and experience, firefighters should possess certain qualities or skills that lead to long-term success. As emergency personnel, firefighters can expect the job to be grueling and take its toll on a person’s emotional well-being. Having certain qualities can help one withstand the hardships of the job.

Mental preparedness: A firefighter must be able to work under pressure and handle stressful situations. They must enter burning buildings, treat medical emergencies, and face dangerous situations. Being mentally prepared helps them face the challenges ahead.

Communication skills: Being able to communicate effectively and clearly during times of disaster is an important skill for a firefighter. Firefighters must give clear direction and be able to explain dangerous conditions at an emergency scene to colleagues and other emergency personnel. Also, firefighters must convey confidence and leadership through speech to the people they are helping to assure that the situation is under control.

Compassion: As an emergency responder, like an EMT or paramedic, a firefighter offers emotional support during emergency situations. It is important for a firefighter to have compassion and empathy.

Quick decision-making skills: Firefighters make quick decisions in response to difficult choices. Sometimes, during life-or-death situations, firefighters must act quickly. Acute decision-making skills help to ensure the job is done well.

Physical stamina: Firefighters must carry heavy hoses, stand for long periods of time, and rescue victims. Physical stamina is critical for the job.

Physical strength: In addition to stamina, a firefighter must have good physical strength. Firefighters carry heavy equipment, assist victims who may be incapacitated, and move heavy debris at emergency sites. Physical strength is important.

An image of a firefighter for our FAQ on the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Firefighter

Earnings Potential for Firefighters

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for firefighters is $52,500. The lowest 10 percent of earners in this occupation make less than $26,940, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $93,000 per year. Industry type directly impacts earnings. For example, BLS reports the three top-paying industries as follows.

State government, excluding education and hospitals, reports a median annual wage for firefighters of $56,340. This number is slightly higher than the annual median wage for all firefighters regardless of industry. The second-highest-paying industry for this occupation is federal government, excluding the postal service. In federal government, firefighters earn a median annual wage of $54,770. Again, this number is slightly higher than the median annual wage for all firefighter positions combined. Local government, excluding education and hospitals, is the third-highest-paying industry for firefighters. In local government, firefighters earn a median annual wage of $53,360. All of these industries showcase a favorable earnings potential that is higher than the average for all firefighter positions.

Earnings for firefighters can also vary by geographic location. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics information published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are five top-paying states for firefighters. The highest-paying state, as reported by BLS, is New Jersey. In New Jersey, the annual mean wage for firefighters is $86,880. The average hourly wage for a firefighter working in New Jersey is $41.77.

Other top-paying states for firefighters include California, Washington, New York, and Hawaii. In California, the annual mean wage for firefighters, according to BLS, is $86,860, just $20 less than the highest-paying state of New Jersey. However, there is a slight jump in earnings between the second-highest-paying state and the third. According to BLS, Washington–the third-highest-paying state for firefighters–pays firefighters an annual mean wage of $77,700. New York is listed by BLS as the fourth-highest-paying state for this occupation. In New York, firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $77,380. The fifth-highest-paying state is Hawaii. In this state, an annual mean wage of $68,590 is expected for firefighters. While these states offer a high earnings potential for firefighters, the cost of living may offset earnings, especially in areas of New York and New Jersey.

In addition to top-paying states for firefighters, certain metropolitan areas pay high wages for this occupation. BLS reports that San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California is the highest-paying metropolitan area for firefighters. In this metro area, firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $125,680. Other top-paying metro areas include San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, California, where firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $109,480, and Vallejo and Fairfield, California, where annual mean earnings of $105,670 are reported. While most of the top-paying metro areas for firefighters are found in California, some are found in the Pacific Northwest region of Seattle and Portland. In fact, the Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue, Washington metro area offers an annual mean wage for firefighters of $86,930, and Portland, Vancouver, and Hillsboro, Oregon offers a mean wage of $83,060.

But it is not only metro areas that pay well for this occupation. In fact, there are five high-paying non-metro areas for firefighters that pay higher than the median annual wage reported for all firefighter positions. Top-paying nonmetropolitan areas include Western Washington non-metro area, Hawaii and Kauai non-metro area, Central/East New York non-metro area, Alaska non-metro area, and Southwest Montana non-metro area. In Western Washington, the annual mean wage for firefighters is $70,150. The Hawaii and Kauai non-metro area offers an annual mean wage of $67,010 and Central/East New York offers a $64,420 annual mean wage for firefighters.

An image of a firefighter for our FAQ on the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Firefighter

Career Advancement for Firefighters

Firefighters may be promoted to higher positions, such as battalion chief, captain, chief, deputy chief, or lieutenant. In order to receive promotion to positions beyond battalion chief, further education may be required. Some fire departments require that candidates hold bachelor’s degrees to qualify for positions higher than battalion chief. Emergency management, fire science, and public administration are common bachelor’s degrees required for advanced roles. However, some firefighters may advance to positions like fire inspectors and investigators through work experience. In fact, with enough work experience, one may land a much higher role than when first hired.

Job Outlook for Firefighters

Firefighters should expect a favorable job outlook through 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by BLS projects a six percent employment growth for firefighters over the next eight years. Anticipated growth is faster than the average for all occupations. In fact, approximately 24,200 job openings for firefighters, on average, are anticipated each year over the next decade.

The growth should come from the need to replace workers who exit the labor force due to retirement, advance to a new occupation, or transfer to a different location. Wildland firefighters will be in demand as environmental changes occur. Wildland firefighters are needed to combat active fires in the wilderness and reduce the impact of fires by managing the environment. Since building codes and materials have improved over the years, and continue to improve, there has been an overall decrease in residential and commercial fires and fire-related fatalities. However, firefighters are still needed to respond to emergencies.

Individuals with postsecondary education, paramedic training, and volunteer experience should see the best job prospects. Since there are a limited number of job openings for firefighters, the strongest applicants will set themselves apart from their competition by showcasing their education and training.

BDP Staff
July 2021

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